This is part of a series on the Roman Catholic sacraments. See the index.
Over at Sigma Frame, Jack asks an important question about the Roman Catholic sacrament of marriage:
After all this study and writing, I’m still confused about why the sacrament of marriage is so important to Catholics and Orthodox. I’ve tried searching for this online, but all I’ve found are vague statements like…
— comment by Jack @ Sigma Frame “A Concise History of Marriage Regulatons”
He goes on to list seven different explanations, none of which really answer the question well. In this post, we will answer the question, “Why is the Sacrament of Marriage so important to Roman Catholics?”
Note: Much, but not all, of what is written here also applies to Orthodoxy.
Administration of Grace
Before we continue, we must first establish how Roman Catholicism came to understand marriage as a sacrament, that is, a means of grace. And so, as this comment notes, Paul refers to the marriage of Christ and the Church as a great “sacred secret” (Greek: mustērion). In referring to that “sacred secret”, he also established the relationship between marriage of a husband and wife with the marriage of church and Christ through grace.
Ephesians 3:2-9 (REV)
“[S]urely you have heard of the administration of the grace of God that was given to me for you, and that the sacred secret was made known to me by revelation, as I have already written about briefly. So when you read this, you will be able to understand my insight into the sacred secret of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit, that in union with Christ Jesus and through the good news, the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise. I became a servant of this good news by the gift of the grace of God that was given to me by the working of his power. To me, who am less than the least of all the holy ones, this grace was given so that I could proclaim the good news to the Gentiles about the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the administration of the sacred secret, which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things.”
Here Paul refers to the “administration (or management) of the grace of God” as the “administration of the sacred secret”. The sacred secret and the grace of God are one in the same. And so when Paul brings up marriage in Ephesians 5:29-32…
[F]or no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This sacred secret is great, but I speak in regard to Christ and the church.
…he refers to that sacred secret—the grace of God.
Before we continue, let’s note that “mustērion” means “hidden thing, secret, mystery” as in “generally mysteries, religious secrets, confided only to the initiated and not to ordinary mortals.” Paul plainly has this in mind when he says that the administration of the sacred secret “which was not made known to people in other generations” and “for ages [had] been hidden in God” but was “made known to me by revelation” and now “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit” and “[brought] to light for everyone”, including Gentiles. He states that this sacred secret is “in union with Christ Jesus and through the good news”, the good news given to Paul by the gift of the grace of God to be preached to the Gentiles that which was otherwise unsearchable. Far from being a permanently “hidden or secret thing, not obvious to the understanding”, Paul speaks of the gospel as a thing once unknown but now made known and proclaimed: the gospel of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
When the Latin and English speak of the “mystery” as a secret that is both unknown and unknowable, equivalent to the Latin word for sacrament—it is mistranslating.
Now, to the Christ follower, the one-flesh bond of marriage symbolized—prefigured, but previously secret and unknown before Christ—of the union of Christ and the Church through the Gospel. After all, Paul quoted Genesis 2:24 only to immediately clarify “This sacred secret is great, but I speak in regard to Christ and the church“, that is, in the joining of a husband and wife in marriage we can now see how Christ is similarly joined to his bride, the church: which is the sacred secret, the grace of God. This is why, for example, the example of Christ (with regard to the church, his bride) applies so strongly to the behavior of the husband and wife in their love, submission, service, sacrifice, honor, and respect.
But to the Roman Catholic, to whom the administration of grace means “dishing it out” through ritual, marriage is not merely a symbol of our union with Christ, but includes literal grace: the actual ritual administration of saving grace. As dpmonahan notes:
Sacraments are symbols of divine realties. The OT and NT both use marriage as a metaphor of God and Israel or Christ and the church.
In Roman Catholicism, it is not merely a symbol, but is an expression with physical form: marriage is the outward, visible expression and form that grace—the sacrament—takes, of the inward, but invisible, reality of Christ and the church. (For more information, see USCCB “Sacraments and Sacramentals“).
The Sacrament of Marriage
With the ‘biblical’ foundation of marriage as “a grace” now given, we can proceed to answering the opening question. To do that, we must now examine what the sacrament of marriage is according to the dogma of Roman Catholicism.
The Roman Catholic sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders. They form the core of Roman Catholicism. As I explained in much greater detail in “Sanctified Marriage, Part 6“, the Roman Catholic sacraments are the means of saving grace. These sacraments are required for salvation, and marriage is a sacrament, so marriage is one of the things that satisfies the requirement for salvation. Let me illustrate how in Roman Catholicism, the sacraments are a means of grace.
In his “Becoming Catholic” series, Joshua Charles makes a revealing comment in his commentary on Ignatius:
In the first chapter, Ignatius almost seems to beg the Roman church not to pray for him, as he seeks martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, and says that “it is easy for you to accomplish what you please.” This is, again, some sort of unique grace, or ability, he attributes to the Roman church. While Ignatius was headed to Rome for his martyrdom, his comment could not possibly refer to any sway the Roman church had with civil authorities, as this was a period of great persecution.
— Becoming Catholic #10: Church Authority, and Saint Ignatius the Red Pill, Part 5—Roman Finale
Jack’s confusion with the sacrament of marriage rests solely because he doesn’t understand grace as an active act of meritorious salvation (because the concept isn’t found in the Bible). In Roman Catholicism, saving grace is effected by human action. Charles sees in this quote by Ignatius a special grace—an ability—that the church in Rome possesses that no other has. An ability is a work, a thing that can be done. For our purpose, the fact that it is bestowed by God is neither here nor there. The only thing relevant here is that it is something that specific humans possess and enact according to some rule or code: a ritual, if you will.
The Sacrament of Marriage is so important to Roman Catholics because the Sacraments are the foundation of the faith and marriage is one of only seven sacraments. It is just as important as the Mass (i.e. Eucharist) and Baptism. To ask “why the sacrament of marriage is so important?” is to ask “why is the sacrament of baptism so important?” or “Why is frequently participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Mass so important?” In short, marriage is a ritual that produces grace, it is actively sanctifying to its participants.
Nevermind that this is a lie from the pit of Hell, this is what they believe to be true. This is why marriage is a sacrament.
Now let’s walk through the seven different explanations Jack has received in light of the above.
“A sacramental marriage confirms and strengthens the human value of a marital union.”
Remember that in Roman Catholicism, salvation is a regenerative sanctifying process (not once and for all, as the Bible teaches). By making marriage a sacrament, marriage is a literal regenerative process that makes a person better by increasing grace. Making it a sacrament quite literally increases the human value of that union.
“A sacramental marriage lets the world see, in human terms, something of the faithful, creative, self-emptying, abundantly life-giving love of our Lord.”
“The sacrament of marriage is a visible sign of God’s love for the Church.”
Marriage, like the other sacraments, is the visible manifestation of grace. You can literally see the regenerative life-giving process of the saving grace of Christ in marriage as it remakes its participants.
“Christian Marriage is a sacrament that orders the husband and wife to serve one another.”
I’m not completely sure where they were going with this one. I don’t know why marriage has to be a salvific regenerative process in order for a husband and wife to serve one another. Perhaps because the natural state of man is to dominate by authority (to “Lord it over them”), and only through Christ can authority be transformed into service (Christ washed his disciples’ feet). Regardless, it is completely clear that the sacrament orders, that is, causes action. Once again we can see the sacrament of marriage as a means of grace. By marrying and being married, a husband and wife experience salvific regeneration that reorders their behavior.
“Christ’s grace in the Sacrament of Marriage protects the essential purposes of marriage.”
This is self-explanatory with the explanation given above. Salvific grace through regeneration is the essential purpose of marriage.
“In a sacramental marriage, God’s love becomes present to the spouses in their total union and also flows through them to their family and community.”
This is just a rephrasing of the sanctifying, regenerative nature of grace: the means in which grace is bestowed upon persons. I’m not sure if this is official dogma of Roman Catholicism that marital sanctification flows to the family and community, but it is certainly the logical next step of meritorious works of salvation.
“Marriage is sacramental because it is Christ’s unbreakable love for his people.”
This is obviously a reference to Genesis 2, where a husband and wife cleave together, and Matthew 19:6 where Jesus said that no man can tear the marriage asunder. Ironically, those verse militates against the Roman Catholic position, but that apparently doesn’t stop the comparison nonetheless. Regardless, Christ’s unbreakable love for his people is made manifest in the loving gift of grace, as shown in the USCCB “Sacraments and Sacramentals”:
…his gracious initiative in redeeming us through the death and Resurrection of his Son. His initiative is called grace because it is the free and loving gift by which he offers people a share in his life, and shows us his favor and will for our salvation. Our response to the grace of God’s initiative is itself a grace or gift from God by which we can imitate Christ in our daily lives.
Thus does grace—which is the expression of Christ’s unbreakable love—come in marriage.
I’m just not seeing what’s so unique about sacramental marriage that sets it apart from an equally sanctified non-sacramental Christian marriage like what might be found among Protestants. Is it just a Cathodox label for a sanctified marriage that fits God’s ordained order, or is there something more to it? Could someone please explain?
Non-sacramental marriage is not a means of saving grace, because marriage is only a sacrament after the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental marriage only be experienced by first converting to Roman Catholicism and then participating in the marriage sacrament. None of the sanctifying and regenerative properties of marriage are available to non-sacramental marriages. Non-sacramental marriages are not sanctifying.
When a Roman Catholic is promoting the Sacrament of Marriage, they are implicitly and always advocating conversion to Roman Catholicism. Because the Sacrament of Marriage requires conversion, any Roman Catholic who says “Marriage is a Sacrament” is also saying “Roman Catholicism is the only true faith.” So too, any claim that marriage is not a sacrament is an implicit claim that Roman Catholicism is a false religion. Marriage as a sacrament is that important.